In a water-stressed world, shared water resources are becoming an instrument of power, fostering competition between nations.
Potentially calamitous water shortages in the densely populated parts of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa could create large numbers of “water refugees” and overwhelm some states’ institutional capacity to contain the effects. The struggle for water is already escalating political tensions in certain parts of the world.
Downstream Egypt, for example, uses the bulk of the Nile River’s water, yet it is now threatening unspecified reprisals against Ethiopia’s continuing construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam.
China, already the world’s most-dammed nation, has approved the construction of 54 new dams – many of them on rivers that are the lifeblood of neighbouring countries. Turkey is accelerating an ambitious dam-building programme, which threatens to diminish cross-border flows into Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, intrastate water-sharing disputes have become common. Water conflicts within culturally diverse nations, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Sudan, often assume ethnic dimensions, thereby accentuating internal-security challenges.
But as illustrated by the disputes within, for example, the United States, Spain and Australia, intra-country water conflict is not restricted to the developing world.
Water conflicts in America have spread from the arid west to the east. Violent water struggles, however, occur mostly in developing nations, with resource scarcity often promoting environmental degradation and perpetuating poverty. Adequate access to natural resources, historically, has been a key factor in peace and war.
Countries can import fossil fuels, mineral ores and resources originating in the biosphere, such as fish and timber. But they cannot import water, or at least not in a major or sustainable manner. Water is essentially local and very expensive to ship.
Potable water supplies will come under strain if oceans rise. Rapid economic and demographic expansion has already turned potable water into a major issue across large parts of the world. Lifestyle changes have increased per capita water consumption.
It is against this background that water wars (in a political and economic sense) are already being waged between competing states, including by building dams on international rivers or by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction.
US intelligence has warned that such water disputes could turn violent.
According to a report reflecting the joint judgement of US intelligence agencies, the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism could become more likely in the next decade in some regions.
The InterAction Council, comprising more than 30 former heads of state or government, meanwhile, has called for urgent action, saying some countries battling severe water shortages risk failing. Water stress is adding to socioeconomic costs.
The World Bank has estimated the economic cost of China’s water problems at 2.3 per cent of its GDP. China, however, is not as yet under water stress – a term internationally defined as the availability of less than 1,700 cubic metres of water per person per year. By contrast, the already water-stressed economies, stretching from South Korea and India to Egypt and Morocco, are paying a higher price for their problems.
Nature’s fixed water-replenishment capacity limits the world’s freshwater resources to nearly 43 trillion cubic metres per year. But the human population has almost doubled since 1970.
Growth in consumption has become the single biggest driver of water stress. Rising incomes, for example, have promoted changing diets, especially a greater intake of meat, the production of which is notoriously water-intensive. It is about 10 times more water-intensive to produce meat than plant-based calories and proteins.
As a result, water could become the world’s next major security and economic challenge.
Consider some sobering facts: bottled water at the supermarket is already more expensive than crude oil on the spot market. More people today own or use a mobile phone than have access to water-sanitation services. Unclean water is the greatest killer on the globe, yet a fifth of humankind still lacks easy access to potable water. More than half of the global population currently lives under water stress – a figure projected to increase dramatically during the next decade.
Although no modern war has been fought just over water, this resource has been an underlying factor in several armed conflicts.
With the era of cheap, bountiful water now gone, to be replaced by increasing constraints on supply and quality, the risks of overt water wars are increasing.
Avoiding conflict over water demands international cooperation. But there is still no international water law in force, and most regional water agreements are toothless, lacking monitoring and enforcement rules and provisions formally dividing water among users. Worse still, unilateralism is endemic in the parched world.
The international community thus confronts a problem more pressing than peak oil, economic slowdown and other oft-cited challenges.
Addressing this core problem holds the key to dealing with other challenges because of the nexus of water with global warming, energy shortages, stresses on food supply, population pressures, pollution, environmental degradation, global epidemics and natural disasters.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and an author, most recently of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis